Madiba the flawed father, husband and man: ‘I’m still learning’

 He would probably rue the fact that he has not bequeathed his family the peace he gave South Africa. He would remind us, as he has repeatedly, that he is no saint. As we reflect on his legacy, he would ask us to learn from his greatness and from his human failings.

Only one interview is brutally honest about his fallibility. After his release from prison in 1994, Mandela's first wife, Evelyn Mase, said: "How can a man who committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The whole world worships Nelson too much. He is only a man."

Commentators have been at pains not to visit the sins of the children on the father. Brand specialists say the Mandela name is intact, no matter what. Sociologists and psychologists remind us of the effect of the "absent father" – Mandela's 27 years in jail. These interpretations fail to go beneath the surface.

The Mandelas are not the only ­big-name political family in South Africa. Walter Sisulu's children also lacked a father figure for most of their formative years. They did, ­however, have a strong mother ­figure, Albertina Sisulu, who held the family together and reunited with her husband in one of the greatest love stories of this century.

Nelson Mandela's wandering eye is not one of his exemplary legacies. He married three times. After divorcing Evelyn, he married Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a strong but controversial leader whom he would divorce after his release from prison on grounds of alleged infidelity. But, in another subplot, two women – one dead, one alive – have claimed to be his children through liaisons during his marriage to Winnie.


Onicca Nyembezi Mothoa recently surfaced, demanding to meet her father before he dies. Strongly resembling Mandela, she has been shut out by the family, despite her plausible story of the relationship her mother had with Mandela – and her willingness to take a DNA test. In a country where single mothers raise 40% of our children, this does little to assist campaigns for responsible fatherhood.

Old-school patriarch
If we are to learn from Mandela, we need to acknowledge that his gender legacy is chequered. As activists, we quote often from Mandela's opening of Parliament in 1994: "Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression."

We recognise the strides Mandela made from old-school patriarch to a modern husband in his third ­marriage, to Graça Machel, widow of late Mozambican president Samora Machel.

Yet the same Mandela bequeathed his legacy to his grandson Mandla after his two sons died, bypassing his oldest daughter, Makaziwe. It is clear that, although he got the formal education Mandela demanded of him, the chief has few of his grand­father's personal qualities.

A gender-aware critique of Mandela's legacy needs to question whether this legacy would not have been safer in the hands of an older daughter than in those of an ill-prepared, younger grandson.

As founding chief executive of the Commission on Gender Equality and with commissioners and staff, I handed over the commission's first report to Mandela, then our president, at the Union Buildings in 1997. As he walked into the room, he expressed pleasure at being among so many beautiful women. One of my younger staff members had the courage to say: "Mr President, that is not what this commission is about!" He paused, looked around, and responded: "You are so right! I am still learning!"

This is the Mandela I will remember: the Mandela willing to admit error, willing to have the sins of the children visited upon the father, big enough never to want to be a saint.

Colleen Lowe Morna is the chief executive of Gender Links. This ­article is part of Gender Links's commentary service that offers fresh views on everyday news

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Colleen Lowe Morna
Colleen Lowe Morna
CEO at Gender Links; women's rights advocate; journalist, author, trainer, researcher, Southern Africa; views expressed are my own, retweets not an endorsement.

Related stories

A distress signal from Soweto in 1977

A Window on Soweto by Joyce Sikakane-Rankin provided insight during apartheid censorship

South Africa must revisit and refresh its idea of itself

Covid has propelled citizens into feelings of a new shared identity in which the historical force of ‘whiteness’ is fading into irrelevance

Dance with the ‘devil’: Why SA has fought off the IMF for so long

The ANC has, until now, always rejected going to the International Monetary Fund, which underscores how bad our economic situation is

‘Prisoner 913’: The long, zigzagging path to Mandela’s release

A new book draws on the secret archive of NP justice minister Kobie Coetsee to paint a detailed picture of the lead-up to Nelson Mandela’s release. Shaun de Waal spoke to co-author Riaan de Villiers

Cameroon is a ship without a captain

Ahead of planned protests, Cameroon’s main opposition leader argues that change is more urgent than ever

Yes, Cote D’Ivoire’s president is running for a third term. But this time it’s different

COMMENT: A senior Ivorian government official argues that President Alassane Ouattara is within his rights to run again
Advertising

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Limpopo big-game farmer accused of constant harassment

A family’s struggle against alleged intimidation and failure to act by the authorities mirrors the daily challenges farm dwellers face

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans

Zondo tightens his grip with criminal complaint against Zuma

The state capture commission’s star witness now faces a criminal complaint and another summons

Sharp sting of the Green Scorpions

Crime busters secure a 97% conviction rate and register more criminal dockets for range of crimes
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…